When you start learning Norwegian everything looks nice and simple. 5 million inhabitants in this country you think, it can’t be that hard. You’ll learn the one language here and you will be fine. Okay, two languages actually, with nynorsk. Wait, three with the Sami language (actually there are many Sami languages but they use one in official matters such as NAV).
Why are there more dialects than people in Norway?
Then, to complicate the whole thing it seems like there are more dialects in Norway than there are Norwegian people. Note that there is a difference between a language and a dialect.. And when you are absolutely sure you can recognise a dialect from Sørlandet when someone speaks, you’re like “Hey, you are from Sørlandet right?”, super proud of yourself, trying a “from Kristiansand right?”. And then instead of tapping you on the back and telling you “I am so proud of you little foreigner” they will look at you like you are some kind of godfjott and tell you “Huuh no, I come from Lillesand, a town almost 30 km away from Kristiansand. Nothing to do with Kristiansand dialect actually, we have our own particular dialect.”
And then the guy starts explaining to you why his dialect is so special. “You see, in Kristiansand they use this word, while we don’t. And they say their “r” like this but we say it a bit different”. “Oh Really? Så spennende” is what I usually say, when what I really want to say is that where I come from, 2000 km from here, the valley separating his hometown from the biggest city looks like peanuts on the map. I come from Marseille and most Norwegians don’t even differentiate that from Nice which is more than 300 km away…Plus how long would it take me to recognise every single dialect from every village? Even Norwegians can’t do that!
Why do more than 2 persons living in every single valley, every single piece of fjord, every piece of land surrounded by water in Norway consider they have their own very specific way of speaking? Believe it or not, they actually do: before immigration and roads and oil and stuff Norwegians had more interaction with sheep and goats than with other Norwegians (and that is why it is called a hyrdestund).
So accept and embrace Norway’s language diversity, and try as best as you can to recognise every dialect. In order to recognise a Norwegian dialect, you need to follow these three simple steps:
1- Make sure it is not Swedish
This might appear completely out of the topic for a Norwegian, but actually for a foreigner Swedish sounds like a funny way of speaking Norwegian.
My technique in the beginning was to assume anyone with a dialect I’ve never heard before is a Swede. I tell you honestly, it’s a very bad strategy. Because if there is something a Norwegian hates more than telling you he is from that valley over there and not from the closest big city, it is explaining he is not from Sweden.
Anyway, to recognise a Swede it is easy, you wait for the “kj” sounds. They take it always from the throat whereas Norwegians don’t. They also have another melody to their language which is hard to explain here. And they have words such as smästua instead of hytte. But of course for a foreigner it all sounds the same. In a written form it is easy to recognise: if you see ä and ö everywhere instead of å and ø in words it is Swedish. If you see ø and å in the written form but all you hear is dlødludøo, then it’s Danish. (And if you confuse Danish and Norwegian when spoken orally you have a serious hearing problem).
2- Figure out from which big area this Norwegian dialect is from
Once you are sure it is not Swedish you need to identify from which part of Norway this person is coming from. There are big areas in Norway, which overarching dialects. After 5 years in Norway I can only recognise 3 dialects: Østlandet, Vestlandet and Northern Norway. And a little bit of Trøndelag.
People from Østlandet and especially from Oslo have this quite annoying habit of thinking that they speak “normal” or universal Norwegian, that the rest of Norway has a dialect except themselves. This is not true: as much as they write bokmål (which is highly inspired by Danish, not anything Norwegian here), people from different parts of Østlandet and even from Oslo use different words and pronounce things differently from each other. For expample I am starting to hear difference between the people living East and West of Akerselva (river splitting Oslo in two). Those in the East say “Majorstua” while the Westerners say “Majorstuen”. Also those in the East of Oslo say “skav” instead of “skog”. And they drive less expensive cars. And they don’t have summer houses in Barbados and winter hytte in Chamonix.
All in all Østlandet dialect has very open vowels and they speak quite fast (except if they are old, then they speak nice and clear). Most foreigners understand this dialect best because it is the one we learn at norskkurs. It is a bit plain though, if you want some exciting expressions and interesting language habits you’ll have to switch to another dialect.
Vestlandet is an area where people really had no contact with each other as they were each on their little island. There is a new dialect virtually every 20 km in Vestlandet.
In Bergen their “r” is like a French “r”, quite sharp in the throat instead of a rolling it like people in Østlandet. In Ålesund dialect has a lot of “k”s everywhere as proves the sentece Hakke dokke nokke dokke da? which by the way includes a subject, a verb and a complement. Also people in Vestlandet usually write in nynorsk which makes that ikke becomes ikkje (also different when pronuncing it) and noen becomes nokon. My favorite expression to date is bonete which means harry. Example: steik kor bonete! (Uff! so harry!)
My problem is with the Stavanger dialect. First of all I find it a very difficult dialect to understand. The first time I heard a guy speak Stavanger dialect I asked him where in Sweden he was from. He was not too happy about that question, especially because people from Stavanger seem to think they come from a very important place. Sure, the oil gets in from there, but keep it jantelovesque: stay humble.
Then it seems like no one is able to say which region Stavanger is located in. Is it Vestlandet? Is it Sørlandet? To a Northern Norwegian all of these guys are Sørenga, to an Oslo inhabitant all of this is just the West of Norway. So they came up with Vestsørlandet. No sorry, Sørvestlandet.
Northern Norwegians have a completely different melody to the way they speak compared to any other dialect in the country (see a list of vocabulary in Northern Norwegian dialects here). Also, most “Hv” sounds become “K” so Hva becomes Ka, Hvordan becomes kordan (or korsan) and hvorfor becomes kofor. They don’t say hun but ho, and they say helvete a lot. They don’t say full (drunk) but maurings and a regular sentence in Northern Norwegian dialect can be something impossible to understand even for other Norwegians such as Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda. (Dialect from Alta. Answer to what that means at the bottom of this article).
In doubt, start swearing. If it is a Norwegian Norwegian listening to you they will either smile or not even notice you just swore. Because that is part of the regular vocabulary in Northern Norwegian dialects (compared to the much more puritan Sørlandet culture I’ve heard).
Note that dialects have not always been a topic of light discussions. Until the 1970s, those with a Northern Norwegian dialect were discriminated against in Oslo because they were seen as dirty and non-reliable. They could not find rooms to rent or jobs in Oslo, where ads were writing Nordlendinger uønsket. The discrimination against Northern Norwegians stopped when others took their place of unwanted strangers with a funny way of speaking: the Pakistanis.
People from Trøndelag don’t say dere or even dokker like Northern Norwegians, they say dokk. They don’t say vann but vatten. When they say they are ready (klar) they actually mean they are tired. And they have crazy words like huggutullinj which means you feel dizzy (svimmel) but that might just be in my friend’s little town of Haltdalen.
They have many expressions such as Må itj fårrå nåles (du må ta det med ro og ikke gjøre noe uoverveid). All in all Trøndesk dialect is quite confusing for a foreigner and require subtitles.
3- To recognise every single dialect from each other: The woolen socks strategy
Once you know which overarching region the dialect is from, you need to figure out with little community with his/her own dialect this person comes from.
In order to do so, ask him or her how to say “woolen socks” in his/her dialect. Woolen socks is something that every single Norwegian community had to think of naming, without the influence of other peoples’ language/dialect. You will get answers as far away as høssulæst, ullsokker (Oslo), hjemmestrikka læstra (Nord Norge), tjukksåkka, tjokke labba, labba, oillugg, oillsokk (Trøndelag), føslo (Valdres), uillhussu, raggsokker, lodder (Rogaland), ryfylket (Hjelmeland), uilsåkkan (Troms fylke), tjokkelæsta (Sunnmør), uillhussu, raggår, tjukkeragga; raggsokker (Lørenskog). I don’t have all the references here, but I am betting there are around 100 different ways of saying woolen socks in Norway.
You can of also ask directly where exactly that person comes from, but that is less fun. Your second questions needs to be “How do you say woolen socks in your dialect” so that you can send me the answer.
Conclusion: This is not in any way an exhaustive article on all Norwegian dialects. Most dialects are not talked about here (for example Sørlandet, Finnmark, and all the little places all over the country). For tips to recognise other dialects I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for a blogpost 5 more years from now when I have gotten better at this: I did my best to convey what I know about Norwegian dialects, which is not much. A complete overview would require maybe a PhD in Linguistics which I encourage you to write (but I am sure someone else has thought of this before).
So that’s it for today. My next mission: organise tournaments for foreigners competing to recognise Norwegian dialects. And start make impressions of every dialect. And travel around Norway to take some sound samples of everything I hear. That would be so much fun if I could do that. Some training ahead! I wish you luck in your path to understanding Norwegian language and people, as always. For further study you can check out NRK’s show on dialects.
**The sentence from Alta dialect Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda means: Når la igjen hun mindre attraktive jenten på ødemarka på toppen av fjellet. Alta men are obviously men of few words!